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The previous reasoning, and especially the statement of the apostle towards the close of Romans 3, had made justification to depend evidently and exclusively on the expiatory work of Jesus. God was thereby just and the justifier of him that believes in Jesus. And this, as he had further shown, at once opens the door of grace to Gentiles as well as Jews, while it establishes law instead of annulling its authority (as the salvation of sinners on any other principle must).
This naturally raised the question of the saints in Old Testament times, before Jesus and the gospel which, since His advent, is preached to every creature. How does the doctrine agree with God’s ways in their case? Accordingly the apostle takes two instances which would naturally occur to a Jewish objector: one the depositary of promise from God, as regards the chosen people; the other the true type of royalty over them according to God — Abraham and David, but especially Abraham. Both, we shall see, confirm the great argument instead of presenting the smallest difficulty to be removed.
“What therefore shall we say that Abraham, our [fore-]father according to the flesh, hath found?10 For if Abraham was justified by works, he hath matter of boast, but not before God. For what saith the scripture? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh the reward is not reckoned according to grace, but according to debt; but to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is reckoned for righteousness.” (Ver. 1-5.)
What, then, is the true inference from the history of Abraham? If justified by works, certainly the credit would be his; but this is never found before God. And with this the scripture accords; for it speaks not of his goodness before his call or acceptance, but expressly of his faith in God’s word as that which he exercised, and which was accounted as righteousness. (Gen. 15:6.) No Jew who bowed to the divine authority of the Pentateuch could dispute this. Was it, then, consistent or at issue with the gospel? If a man work, the reward is not viewed as a gratuity, but as the wages due to him; but if, instead of working, he believes on Him that justifies the ungodly, what a magnificent proof and conclusion that his faith is reckoned for righteousness! This is free grace, and the very reverse of a debt according to law; and such was the principle of God’s dealings with their great forefather according to the inspired account of Moses.
Take again the testimony of David. Does he fall in with the gospel or contradict the legislator? The sweet psalmist of Israel confirms them, for he pronounces those blessed whom the law could only curse. “Just as David also speaketh of the blessedness of the man to whom God reckoneth righteousness without works. Blessed [they] whose iniquities were forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed a man whose sin the Lord will in no way reckon.” (Ver. 6-8.) Unquestionably this is justification not by good, but in spite of evil works. It is God’s grace blessing, not His law cursing, where there was no righteousness, but only lawlessness and sin; yet the Lord reckons no sin whatever, but righteousness without works. No doubt, man is supposed to be altogether evil and without excuse; but this is the revelation of the God of all grace as He loves to be known by sinful man. He justifies those who need it most — the ungodly. “This blessedness, therefore, [is it] upon the circumcision or also upon the uncircumcision? for we say that to Abraham faith was reckoned for righteousness. How then was it reckoned? When he was in circumcision or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received [the] sign of circumcision, a seal of the faith that [he had] in uncircumcision, in order to his being the father of all that believe while uncircumcised, in order that righteousness might be reckoned to them also; and father of circumcision, net only to those circumcised, but also to those that walk in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham while uncircumcised.” (Ver. 9-12.)
We have seen, then, faith counted as righteousness to Abraham, corroborated by the testimony of David to the blessedness of those whose bad works were remitted and to whom the Lord reckoned no sin. But a new question arises for the Jewish mind — Were not those blessed in the enjoyment of circumcision? Is it not limited to persons within that pale? Again the apostle brings in Abraham. Could any Jew slight him or hesitate as to the conditions of his blessing? How, therefore, in his case was faith reckoned to him? after or before he was circumcised? Beyond doubt, when he was uncircumcised, as their own inspired record made plain and sure. Circumcision was but a sign he received considerably later, as sealing the faith he had while in an uncircumcised state. Thus is Abraham more than any other fitted to be father of all that believe while uncircumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them; and father of circumcision (not of the circumcised, or Jews, as some perversely understand, but), of true separation to God, whether for the circumcised or for those also that walk in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham whilst uncircumcised.
The Jew, therefore, could not cite Abraham without being compelled by the scriptural history to allow that this precedent illustrates the grace of God in justifying the heathen more forcibly, if possible, than in its application to his own circumcised and lineal seed. God, if He pleased, could have justified Abraham after bringing him under the rite of circumcision; but He saw fit to do the very reverse. Not only was faith reckoned as righteousness to Abraham, but it was also beyond cavil whilst he was still uncircumcised; and circumcision was in no way a means of the grace that justifies, but a seal of the righteousness that was reckoned to him long before that sign was instituted by God.
Justification, then, is not of works: else man might boast of himself, instead of God being glorified. It is really according to grace, and not debt; and God reserves His prerogative of justifying the ungodly. Thus God and man have their due place; and as Abraham illustrated the principle, so David speaks of the pronouncing a blessing after this sort in Psalm 32. Nothing but imputing righteousness without works could avail for the justifying of a sinner. Nor this only; for the very man, with whom circumcision began as the command of God, was expressly justified by faith before he was circumcised. So manifestly did God order all in His wisdom and goodness that circumcision should be but a seal of the righteousness of faith which Abraham had while yet uncircumcised. Thus the Gentiles or the uncircumcised were especially provided for in the unquestionable facts recorded in the first book of the Pentateuch, as no Jew could deny. Abraham was father of all believers in a state like his own, and father of circumcision (i.e., separation to God, couched under that act which set forth mortification of the flesh) not only to the circumcised, but also to those that walk in the footsteps of the faith the ancestor of Israel had before circumcision. Believers from among the Gentiles were thus as truly circumcised in the highest sense as Jewish ones.
“For not by law was the promise to Abraham or to his seed, that he should be heir of [the] world, but by righteousness of faith. For if those of law [be] heirs, faith is made vain and the promise is annulled.” (Ver. 13, l4.)
The apostle now reasons from the necessary principle of God’s promise. This excludes law and supposes faith — righteousness. For evidently law supposes the obedience of man as the condition of receiving the boon which is in question. It was not so in God’s dealings with Abraham or his seed. There was not a word about His law when God gave promise to Abraham in Genesis 12, and to his seed in Genesis 22. The promise implies God’s fulfilment of it; the law claimed man’s obedience of its demands. They are thus, while each is admirable for its own end, absolutely different and mutually exclusive. The promised inheritance is not by law, but by another sort of righteousness. It was annexed to faith; and this is so true, that if those who stand on law are heirs, no room is left for faith and the promise comes thus to nought. “For the law worketh out wrath; but where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Ver. 15.) The application is as clear as it is momentous, and this positively as well as negatively. The thing law generally, and in particular the law of God given by Moses, provokes by its very excellence the hostile self-will of man, and so detects his enmity and works out wrath in result. On the other hand, where there is no law, there is no transgression. It is no question of sin here, but of violating positive prescription, which latter of course could not be till the lawgiver uttered the enactments definitely. Then as law existed, it could be transgressed. But it was not yet promulgated in the time of Abraham, who had that wholly different thing — the promise.
The conclusion is, that as law would have defeated the promise of God and brought wrath on man, instead of the inheritance, “on this account [it is] of faith, that [it might be] according to grace in order to the promise being sure to all the seed, not only to that which is of law, but also to that which is of Abraham’s faith, who is father of us all (even as it is written, A father of many nations I have made thee), before God whom he believed, that quickeneth the dead and calleth the things that are not as if they are; who against hope believed in hope, in order to his becoming father of many nations according to that which was spoken, So shall be thy seed.” (Ver. 16-18.) As faith is opposed to works, so is grace to law; while the grace of God who gave the promise makes the sole and withal the large door of faith to open for Gentiles no less than Jews. Had law been the principle, Israel who boasted of possessing the law, though blind to their breaches of it and to their own enhanced exposure to wrath, could alone have made an effort, however vainly. But grace goes out to the Gentile no less than to the Jew who could hardly limit Abraham’s paternity of “many nations” to his own people.
Here too another point of great value is noticed. The God whom Abraham believed quickens the dead and calls things that have no being as though they had. This was rendered evident not only by the fact that Sarah bore no child to Abraham, but by their great age when the promise was given. They were as good as dead, and a child of theirs had no existence. But what of all this to God? Long before the time God spoke, Abraham against hope believed in hope. What a pattern of faith! On the human side all was hopeless; on God’s part there was simply His word. But Abraham believed, hoped, and was not ashamed. God could not fail to make good what He said: “So shall be thy seed.”
We are thus gradually advancing to the great principle of resurrection, which, while it bears mainly on life, as we shall see in Romans 5-8, plays also a most momentous part in justification. For this too the case of Abraham is employed: “And, not being weak in faith, he considered [not] his own body now dead, being about a hundred years old, and the deadening of Sarah’s womb, yet as to the promise of God wavered not through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and fully assured that what he hath promised he is able also to perform.” (Ver. 19-21.) The promise of God was beyond hope, and contrary to it, if he reasoned from himself and Sarah; but yet he believed in hope, because God had declared he should have posterity numerous as the stars and the sand. Faith reasons from God and His word, not from self or circumstances.
In verse 19 there occurs a remarkable difference of reading; and yet, strange to say, though that which results is as opposite as can be, in either way the sense is good. For both appear to suit and carry on the argument, though of course one alone is the true and intended comment of the Spirit on the state of Abraham. There is excellent and perhaps adequate authority of every kind11 (manuscripts, versions, and ancient citations) for dropping the negative particle, which is therefore marked as doubtful in the version just before the reader’s eye. If
οὐ be an interpolation, the meaning would be that Abraham, instead of slighting the obstacles, took full account of them all (Gen. 17:17), yet as regards the promise of God had no hesitation through unbelief, but on the contrary was inwardly strengthened in faith. If the ordinary reading be right, the meaning is that, far from being weak in faith, he paid no heed to the facts before his eyes whether in himself or in his wife, nor staggered at the promise of God through unbelief, but found strength in faith, giving glory to Him and satisfied that He was able also to perform the promise.
“Wherefore also it was reckoned to him for righteousness. Now it was not written on his account alone that it was reckoned to him, but on our account also, to whom it shall be reckoned — [us] that believe on him that raised Jesus our Lord out of [the] dead, who was delivered12 for our offences and was raised for our justification.” (Ver. 22-25.)
Thus as faith was reckoned for righteousness to the father of the faithful, so is it to the believer now. But the apostle takes care to point out the difference as well as the analogy. The faith not of Abraham only but of all the Old Testament saints was exercised on promise. They all in a large sense waited for the accomplishment of what God held out, sure that He could not lie, and was able also to perform. But in the great ulterior object of their hope they were expecting One who was only promised and not yet come.
It is not so with the Christian; for though he, like the elders, obtains a good report by faith, and has his faith reckoned for righteousness, yet the personal object of hope is come, and has wrought the infinite work of redemption. This is an incalculable change, and fraught with mighty consequences. It is not of course that much does not remain to be effected when Christ comes again (changing the saints then alive, raising the dead believers, judging the quick and finally the dead who had no part in the first resurrection, and closing all in the eternal state); but as to the foundation of all this and more, as to that work which alone could glorify God and justify sinful man, it is already done so perfectly that it admits of not a hairbreadth from God or man to render it more complete or efficacious. Such is the gospel of the grace of God; it is not promise, but accomplishment; and so absolutely, we may boldly say, that, if not now done in the cross, in the death and resurrection of Him who hung there, it never can be done — not even by Him. Christ being risen from the dead, dieth no more: death hath no more dominion over Him. Without His death in atonement, nothing was done which could adequately vindicate God about sin. In His death, God is glorified perfectly and for ever. He has put away sin by His sacrifice. By His one offering for our sins, they are gone for the believer. This is no question of hope, but of faith in the efficacy of His redemption, which we already possess through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins. Hence we are viewed in scripture as receiving the end of our faith, namely, the salvation of our souls, though we have to wait for the change of our bodies into His glorious likeness at His coming for us. Besides, there are gracious promises of care in both natural and spiritual necessities along the path here below. But the great fact remains for faith, that the atoning work is done.
Let it be remarked, further, that here it is not a question of the Saviour’s blood as in Romans 3, but of God that raised Jesus our Lord from among the dead. The truth insisted on is not His grace who suffered all for our sins. It is the mighty intervention of God on our behalf in triumphant power, raising out of the dead Him who gave Himself to bear our judgment; or rather as it is here written, who was delivered on account of our offences and was raised to secure our justification. Thus, in Romans 3:26 the point is faith in Jesus; here, it is on Him that raised up Jesus. Such is the God whom we know. The fathers knew Him as He was pleased to reveal at that time and link Himself with them. The God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob was the giver of promises assuredly to be accomplished in His time. But our God, while the same blessed and blessing Almighty, is (as we can say) far more than this. The Only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father — He had declared Him — He who was full of grace and truth. Nor this only; for Jesus, conqueror of Satan in life, went down for us into death, was delivered for our offences, and therein so glorified God that His righteousness could not but bring Him up from the dead. The sins that were laid on Him, where are they? Gone for ever: blotted out by His precious blood. Could God leave Him in death who had thus afresh retrieved His glory and bound up with it the means of our eternal blessing? Impossible. He raised Jesus therefore from the dead and gave Him glory, that our faith and hope might be in God.
As God, then, is thus made known to the believer now, so it will be noticed that all is here closed in justifying us. In the same verse of Romans 3, which has been already compared, we read that He might be ‘‘just and the justifier” of him that believeth in Jesus. For as we look on the blood of Jesus shed in expiation God has necessarily a judicial character. Sins must be judged according to all the holiness of a nature to which they are infinitely abhorrent. Here therefore God is declared to be just and the justifier of the believer. But in the end of Romans 4 we see that it is no longer a question of righteous satisfaction, as this had been completely settled in the blood of Jesus. Not so with justification. This derives an immensely increased value from the resurrection of Jesus which gloriously displayed in the Deliverer’s person the victory that was won for us. He was delivered for our offences and was raised for our justifying. It is our Red Sea, and not merely our Passover
10 The manuscripts differ widely in this place. The Vatican is not alone in omitting
εὑρηκέναι (“hath found”), which would yield a very easy sense. Most of the copies place
κατὰ σάρκα, but the best have it after
ἐροῦμεν. Προπάτορα is the reading of but few, but perhaps enough; as
πατέρα is the usual form and might easily have slipped in.
11 The Sinai, Vatican, Alexandrian, and Rescript of Paris (C.), with a few cursives, some of the oldest and best copies of the Vulgate, the Syriac (not the later or Philox.), the Coptic, the Erpenian Arabic, and some Greek and Latin fathers did not read
οὐ. Lachmann accordingly leaves it out, and Griesbach counted it a probable omission. Tischendorf too omitted it in his first edition, but replaced it in the second and those subsequent. Meyer adheres to the common text.
Διά with the accus. means “for,” “on account of,” either retrospectively or prospectively, according to the requirement of the context (as here we have instances of each). The active force of
δικαίωσις forbids “because of,” as does Romans 5:1, which makes faith necessary to justification. I have therefore preferred “for” as admitting of a similar latitude in English.